Friday, October 1, 2021

Massive Migration and Unspoken Realities : Edam to Turtleford

We awoke just before dawn to sounds of the oil field traffic on the nearby highway.  It was a very cool morning, but while we made coffee we were treated to a glorious sunrise.  A band of golden light along the horizon soon turned the fluffy clouds overhead a pale pink and then a brilliant blazing red.  Curiously, the clouds became a pale yellow as the sun rose above the hills in a strong pool of bright red light.  It was fascinating and beautiful to watch.



As we finished packing up, the very friendly and kind campground owner invited us into his warm workshop for a cup of hot coffee and a chat.  He shared stories of the history of Edam and the surrounding area, what it was like to grow up there, what's changed in the world, and the direction Canada is going.  It was a interesting conversation, and through part of it we heard a frustration that has been reiterated by many as we've crossed the prairies.  The challenges out here are different than those in the cities, but because there isn't a large population in these rural areas there is a strong feeling that the federal government and people from the big cities aren't listening.  While the dynamics of democracy which invariably follow the voice of the population (which in Canada are in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver) it certainly does not mean that the voices in these regions – which have a valuable perspective on how our nation should move forward – should be forgotten or ignored.  Part of the solution may be building stronger communities, relearning how to respect each other, ensuring we remain vigilant and always striving to make sure that we are figuring things and thinking out for ourselves rather than following the ever shifting online trends and digital memes of the day.    


As a result of our conversation we ended up leaving later than we intended, and as we headed out of town on the beautiful municipal pathway, school was just starting for the day.  The trail, which was strewn with crunchy golden leaves, took us out through a quiet neighborhood to the edge of town, where we picked up a paved road for the first few kilometers.  There were a lot of large trucks and vehicles on the road, but the drivers were very considerate, and almost all of them gave us a smile and a friendly wave as they passed.



We soon turned north onto a smaller gravel lane way bordered by trees covered in warm golden leaves.  The undulating but hard packed road was a pleasure to walk, the colourful leaves crunching beneath our feet as we passed fields of mowed grain and rolling pastures.  Hundreds of Canada Geese, Snow Geese, and White-fronted Geese were foraging in the fields, and passing by in waves overhead.  Smaller groups of ducks and Tundra Swans joined the living streams flowing south.




A few hours into our hike we came to a lovely resting area at the foot of Horse Hill.  The small grassy area had a bench, a cairn, and a Visitor's registration book.  It was located at the spot where the historic Fort Pitt Trail and Carleton Trails converged, and the cairn was erected to honour the memory of the pioneers who traveled these trails.  

We've crossed the Fort Carlton Trail at several points already, as it made its way from the Red River Colony (Winnipeg) to Fort Edmonton, winding through Fort Ellis, the Qu'Appelle Valley, near Batoche, through Fort Carlton, and along the North Saskatchewan River to Fort Edmonton.  Both these trails were part of a network of routes across the Western Prairies that were used by M├ętis freighters and traders, Hudson's Bay employees, settlers, and First Nations Peoples throughout the early 19th century.  It was not until the completion of the railway that many of these routes fell into disuse.  


It is said that the journey from the Red River Colony to Fort Edmonton along the Carlton Trail took two months by Red River Ox cart.  As I write this I can't help but feel a little sad that even with the modern gravel grid roads used by the Trans Canada Trail we are moving at a slower rate than ox! We really are following the 'scenic' route, which is typically 3 to 3.5 times longer than the direct route.


We gratefully took a break on the bench at the historic site, which displayed the quote "Sit - Close your eyes and hear the ox carts" by Harry Washbrook.  We also took a look at the guest book and were delighted to find an entry from Mel Vogel from August 21, 2019!  We were also tickled to find an entry by someone from Sechelt, BC!  It was a very peaceful treed spot, and we enjoyed sitting in the sunshine.


Somewhat reluctantly we began the long, steep climb up Horse Hill.  When we were nearly at the top a man stopped to chat.  When I said we were walking the Trans Canada Trail he said the actual Trans Canada Trail followed the Fort Pitt Trail, which ran along a small road we'd just passed at the base of the hill.  Apparently there is still a farmhouse on that road that once served as a stopping point for travelers on the Fort Pitt Trail.  We were literally standing beside a Trans Canada Trail marker when he shared this information with us, but he wasn't the first person to tell us we were off the trail in the last few days.  Nor was this the first person to tell us that all the regional signs were wrong!  As we later discovered, he was quite possibly right, even though we were following the trail App, online TCT map, and one set of trail markers.


From the top of the hill we were rewarded with a 360° view out over the rolling countryside below us.  A blanket of pale blond and rich brown fields spread out below us, interspersed with stands of golden trees and deep blue lakes.  Black oil drums and other oil field infrastructure also dotted the fields in all directions.  

From this point onwards the going got very tough.  The gravel grid road was so soft it was extremely difficult to push or pull the carts, and we ended up climbing and descending a succession of huge and extremely steep hills.  The views from the top were spectacular, and there were small lakes at the bottoms which were filled with hundreds and hundreds of ducks.

Towards the end of the day we came to a stretch of road that spanned between two bodies of water. On one side of the road the water was covered in thousands of Snow Geese who covered the surface in living white drifts.  On the other side large groups of Mallards and other ducks took flight as we approached.  At this point we spotted something truly extraordinary - two other people out walking the gravel grid roads!  


Shortly after we passed the two ladies, who were out for their daily constitutional, a farmer approached on his ATV and stopped for a chat.  We explained what we were doing and he directed us onwards towards Turtleford, and wished us well.

Shortly afterwards we took a detour off the trail (or so we thought), and gratefully followed a paved road for one concession east. When we got to the turnoff to go north towards Turtleford we were surprised to find Trans Canada Trail markers with arrows indicating we should have already been walking north on that road.  In addition there was a large Great Trail map detailed an entirely a different route than the marked one we'd followed to Turtleford and through the area! Confused, we headed north towards Turtleford, grateful to be gliding along another paved road after so many hours of ploughing through deep gravel.  The farmland was covered in infrastructure for the oil fields, including a huge earthworks and a large Husky Oil processing plant.  Traffic was constant, but as usual, the drivers were very nice to us.

When we reached Turtleford we were dismayed to find a sign on the campground saying "Fully Contained RVs only”.  Once again we were left frustrated after having already called this week to ensure that we could camp here.   This was yet another closure resulting from the pandemic, and it left us wondering what to do for the night.  We sat on the wooden steps of the Turtleford and District Museum, which was located in the Lions Park.  The museum was housed in the original Canadian National Railway Station, which was built in 1913.  A railway car was parked outside the station as part of the museum.  

As we sat there taking a break we noticed that the windows in the train were broken, and everything on the station was barred.  Down the street beside us several men were engaging in a noisy brawl and we noticed several cars stopping on the street to watch us.  Just as we decided needed to move on, a woman in a white SUV raced up to the museum and began checking all the doors and windows on the building and the train car while glaring fiercely and huffing angrily at us.  Clearly she thought we were up to no good, and she was making sure we knew it.  It felt like we had walked into the middle of a local struggle, and were not welcome to stay in the region for the tonight.  As we walked away from the train station she called out “your sort aren’t welcome here” and continued to check and recheck the locks on the museum doors and status of the nearby train car.

A few steps later we found another marker for the Trans Canada Trail, attached to a Paynton Trail sign, with an arrow pointing down a grassy ATV railway track running alongside the highway.  Beside it was a map for the Great Trail, which seemed to include several large loops around the town.  According to the current version of the online Trans Canada Trail map and the App, the Trail doesn't even come close to Turtleford - yet the Paynton Trail has been one of those routes that people since North Battleford have insisted we should be following as the 'real TCT'.  These inconsistencies are kind of frustrating, especially when the route we are following is both difficult and circuitous.

We continued into town, finding Ernie the Turtle. At 2.4 m tall, this tourist attraction claims the title of 'Canada's largest and friendliest turtle.'  Ernie was designed by Don Foulds, and built to commemorate Turtleford's acquisition of town status in 1983.  Turtleford was named after the Turtle River which runs through it.  The other claim to fame for this region is that it is one of the best spots in Saskatchewan for Sprague's Pipits to nest!

As we sat at a picnic table beside Ernie the sun was beginning to set and the temperature was starting to plummet. Nothing on the satellite imagery in the area immediately surrounding us looked at all promising for camping, and we were completely exhausted after a long day of hard walking.  As we sat at the picnic table striving to find a solution to our problem the same women in her white SUV again slowly drove up, parked parallel to the wooden bridge leading to Ernie the Turtle, rolled down her window and called out “there are cameras all around so the RCMP have pictures of you! Leave Now!”

Sigh...

This marked one of the few times in the prairies and perhaps the only time in Saskatchewan that we have been confronted in such a way.  Yet while the comments were directed at us, the attitude of this individual  clearly reflected a regional reality that had nothing to do with us in particular.  It is one of the challenges of this trek – meeting people, observing situations, and seeing towns, often for only a few moments.  It often means that we do not fully see and understand many of the deeper layers within each community.   Why were the museum doors and windows bared?  What happened to the train doors and windows?  Why are there cameras on the public properties?  Why are so many farms in this region part of ‘Rural Crime Watch’ areas?  Why are agricultural fields in the middle of vast empty concessions noted as 'being monitored by cameras'?  What has happened in this individual's life to make them so judgmental and jaded?  What are the unspoken realities of these communities that we pass through that we can only guess at?

We will of course never know, we can only try to see the world from another person's perspective to better understand and in so doing strive to quell the undercurrents of anxiety and division in our neighbourhoods and nations.

Regardless, with our current situation having no evident solution and given that both of us were exhausted, dismayed and frustrated we decided that although it wasn't what we had planned to do, we would enquire about rooms in the local motel.  Fortunately we were in luck, and so a very long and somewhat frustrating day came to a unexpected but timely conclusion...with a warm shower.

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